Don’t underestimate Kim, and don’t back down
Moments after Donald Trump shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the truce village that straddles the two Koreas and stepped over into the Northern side, accompanied by a beaming Kim, President Trump intoned, “Big moment, tremendous progress.”
He is right. It was indeed a big moment for the North Korean tyrant.
And the big moment marked tremendous progress in Kim’s nuclear extortionist policy. Ominously, it also adumbrated even greater progress to come.
Handshakes and bonhomie between erstwhile adversaries are blithely assumed to be a positive development, and no doubt President Trump himself took much pleasure in this mood-enhancing moment he had engineered. But some dramatic and bonhomous moments go down in the annals of history as truly “historic” — of the infamous kind. This one fits the bill perfectly.
Most of the international media and practically all South Korean outlets dubbed the “Trump walks on North Korean soil” scene a “historic moment.” Curiously, it was only a little over a year ago, in April 2018, when they gushed and uttered the same words as Kim rolled out Act I of his five-act Korean tragedy on the very same stage with South Korean President Moon Jae-In in the supporting role. Thereafter, sweet-sounding words such as “peace,” “denuclearization” and “reconciliation” were pronounced with glee.
The smiles and bonhomie then were a potent brew, as the formerly belligerent North Korean leader came across as a normal, if not gracious, regular guy. The despot from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea graciously frolicked with his South Korean hosts into the night, even obliging South Korea’s principals who excitedly stood in line to take turns downing shots with the Supreme Respected Leader.
Since that joyous moment, North Korea reportedly has built 10 or more nuclear bombs.
Act II of Kim’s epic play, “How to become the superior or sole Korean state,” took place in Singapore last June with President Trump in the crucial supporting role. The story line was simple and easy to understand: Kim ensnares Trump into a drawn-out process of nuclear negotiations from which Trump cannot retreat. Meanwhile, the North Korean maestro continues to perfect his nuclear posture and cook up more pitfalls for Trump. Act II, all too brief as it was, ended happily. But Act III in Hanoi produced an unexpected plot twist. Kim, who had grown up as unimpeachable royalty, was doused with a historic snub when Trump walked out on him.
However, at the border village today, “Act III, Scene 2,” Kim manipulated Trump to restore the balance in the DPRK’s favor by beautifying Kim’s image and, more importantly, giving him the license to keep building the bomb, drag out negotiations, and bully South Korea and Japan at will. In a single afternoon, President Trump, out of hubris and ignorance, awarded Kim more time and cover to advance his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs, and thereby grow his lethal capacity with which to threaten the region and the U.S. mainland.
What explains such folly?
First, North Korea’s deft weaponization of its weirdness. Pyongyang’s controlled provocations and bluster barrages followed by de-escalation and fake peace overtures have a proven record of success. Create a crisis, back down a bit, and compel the U.S. to give more. It’s the North Korean way, and a highly rational strategy.
Were Kim Jong Un a poor, passive dictator who could be tamed with economic concessions and security assurances, Trump’s theatrical proposal for a meeting with Kim, even if just for a handshake, might have advanced the U.S. goal of seeking North Korea’s complete denuclearization. President Trump could have reassured Kim that he means no ill will toward his regime and reaffirmed messages from previous summit meetings that full denuclearization would bring aid, investment and, ultimately, riches to his people.
But because Kim himself, a dictator for life, is far richer than Trump, quite proactive in peddling his own brand of nuclear blackmail stratagem, and a despot unencumbered by the welfare of his own people, Trump’s gesture and, indeed, his entire approach to engaging North Korea, likely will have the opposite effect of affirming Kim as the steward of a full-fledged nuclear state. With more deft maximization of weirdness and unforced errors by Washington, Kim will be given an even greater opportunity to complete his non-negotiable campaign of overpowering the far richer South.
Second, the unrelenting propensity on the part of Americans to patronize the weird-looking regime. While none of the eight other nuclear states — the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, India, Pakistan and Israel — has shown the gall to peddle the possibility of denuclearization for economic blandishments, North Korea has been able to perfect this scheme and gains billions of dollars in return. By virtue of its own exceptional backwardness, the Kim regime can bamboozle the U.S. into believing it is desperate for money or security guarantee.
The U.S. must shed its “Orientalist” mentality — the patronizing presumption that the “Orient” can be molded, depicted and changed by the superior “West.” The astounding failure that is U.S. nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis the DPRK in the post-Cold War era is rooted in the American propensity to underestimate and patronize the government in Pyongyang, its sophisticated adversary.
To most Americans, the notion that it is North Korea and not the United States that has called the shots in the bilateral relationship is just about inconceivable. After all, measured by all indices of state power — military, economic, soft power, political attractiveness, or the size of territory and population — the United States is so much more powerful than North Korea, a backward nation of 25 million. With the right mix of artful diplomacy and pressure, generosity and calculated bellicosity, the ultra-weird looking regime in Pyongyang will be made malleable — so American policymakers have thought.
But the history of U.S. engagement and intervention — whether of neutral states or hostile powers — is a mixed record. Even client states dependent on U.S. largesse, for example, South Korea, the Chinese Nationalist government in the 1950s and 1960s, or, in more recent memory, the governments of Iraq or Afghanistan, often have defied U.S. initiatives. North Korea is not only not the exception to this misplaced American assumption that small states are tamable, but is the most stunningly unequivocal affirmation of its folly.
Thus, hubris and ignorance of history, rather than pragmatism and planning, have driven each round of Washington’s impromptu crisis management reaction to North Korea’s calculated provocations. In the current administration, such liabilities have reached new heights.
Kim Jong Un will try to stage Act IV of his master plan, because President Trump, in an ill-thought goodwill gesture, has extended an invitation to Kim to visit the White House. When the North Korean obliges, Trump must rescind the offer. If Kim seeks a peace agreement, the U.S. must see it as a ploy to call into question the raison d’etre of U.S. Forces in South Korea and the U.S.-South Korea alliance, rather than a plea born of paranoia. If North Korea agrees to establish liaison offices in each other’s capital, the U.S. must make on the North some basic demands such as the dismantlement of its inhumane gulags. Above all, the U.S. must not prematurely relax sanctions against the Kim regime.
President Trump, of all elected leaders, should know: It never pays to underestimate one’s adversary. It’s way past time that the United States take the North Korean regime, as weird and mockable as it looks, seriously as a formidable foe.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. A former research associate of Harvard University’s Korea Institute, he has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.